Westerlo enacts solar law

WESTERLO — Tuesday, the town board unanimously passed a new solar law that updates zoning codes on residential and commercial solar panel use.

Before adopting the bill, the board ruled to change requirements for residential solar panels: increasing the maximum square footage of ground-mounted solar panels from 200 to 400 square feet and decreasing the minimum distance from a lot line from 50 to 30 feet. Other changes involved renumbering paragraphs in the law.

In the town workshop following the meeting, Councilman William Bichteman suggested opting in to a provision that allows owners of solar panels a tax exemption of what the panels add to the value of their property, setting up a Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, or PILOT, system to set fees on a case-by-case basis to owners of solar panels.

The solar law

The updated bill still contains an expedited process for smaller solar arrays, those with a maximum output of 25 kilowatts or less. Residential arrays are subject to local zoning laws and require a building permit. Roof-mounted panels must be three feet away from any chimney, not installed on overhangs, and not extend more than 18 inches past the surface of the angle of the roof. Ground-mounted arrays must be installed no less than 30 feet from any lot line (reduced from 100 feet in the original bill, and 50 feet in the second draft), be no more than 20 feet in height, and have solar batteries securely stored. A special-use permit is required if the array is higher than 10 feet, longer than 20 feet, or has a surface area greater than 200 square feet.

A building permit and special-use permit are required for all commercial systems; systems also must be 100 feet from any lot line, except for those designated “Community Solar Farms,” which must be 50 feet away. The arrays must be no more than 20 feet in height, and batteries must be secured in accordance with the fire and building code.

The commercial systems, including buildings and accessory structures, may cover a maximum of 20 acres of land. The designated acreage depends on the lot size and location: one-third of the parcel if it’s in the Westerlo or South Westerlo hamlets; one-third if the lot is 3 to 10 acres; two-fifths if the lot is 10 to 20 acres; and one-half if the lot is 20 to 30 acres; anything higher than 30 acres is capped at 20 acres.

Commercial arrays also require a site plan; a copy of a lease agreement (if the land is leased); an escrow account of at least $7,500; and public liability insurance, property damage insurance, and umbrella insurance of no less than $1 million. A surety of no less than one-fifth of construction cost must be posted as well. Abandoned arrays must be removed by the owner within three months or the town may do so.

The law also includes a provision that allows the town to issue fee schedules at its discretion.

Past debates and future plans

The town board had already held a public hearing for the law at its February meeting, deciding to table the ruling on the bill following a number of questions raised during the public hearing. Residents asked about setback requirements and the use of arrays to power commercial offices. At the March town board meeting, the law was again tabled after concerns about the tax exemptions for solar arrays were raised by the board.

The town’s planning board has scheduled public hearings for several different applications involving solar. One, scheduled for the April 25 meeting, is for a solar farm on private property owned by Jeff Beller to power a number of homes he owns. Another, for an array provided by Hudson Solar to power the offices of Eastern Mutual Insurance on Route 32, is scheduled for March 28.

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